Before their big day began, I kept telling myself the same thing, over and over. It’s not about you, it’s about them. It’s their moment. You need to be in control of your words and emotions at all times. You can’t lose it.
We had assembled before about 75 of their closest family and friends in front of the Havana-themed back room of the historic restaurant with its verdant tropical garden. On the Saturday before Labor Day in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, it was the radiant young bride, the handsome young groom with the jet-black thatch and beard and … me, the middle-aged bald minister who would marry them.
Oh, and the couple’s cat/first child stood sentry in the background in the form of an 8-by-10 framed picture, unofficially presiding over the ceremony.
“Hi, Sal Cat,” I said, addressing the photo in the welcome.
Alexandra Marie Squitieri and Jason Daniel Coates laughed. If they were nervous, they didn’t show it. Next to me, in point of fact, they were remarkably calm. From my first words, I was afraid I would begin crying.
“When Jason and Alex first asked me to perform their wedding, my initial thought was, my wife is not going to believe I get to be a minister for a day,” I began. “My second thought was how honored I was to be asked.
“The reason is simple: Without Jason, I am not here today. Before I tell you the story of how they came into each other’s lives, let me tell you the story of how Jason came into mine.”
On a cold January night in 2008 I was in the middle of the frozen-over C&O Canal, less than a quarter-mile south of Chain Bridge , unable to get out. While we were jogging, my golden Lab, Looly, went out onto the ice and fell through, and I went in after her. After several minutes I managed to put my arm under her abdomen and jerk her up onto a solid piece of ice. But I couldn’t touch bottom, and by then I could barely move. My body was shutting down.
Out of nowhere, as I screamed for help, a figure appeared. He lowered his body into the freezing water as far he could without losing his balance. He reached for me. And when I lunged, finally touched the bottom and got closer to shore, he grabbed my hand, pulled me out and we went up the bank together. I was going to make it, and Looly didn’t have to go home with someone else that night.
I was in shock from hypothermia. He said he was cold, too, making sure Looly and I were all right. Freezing, out of breath, I asked him his name and where he worked.
“Jason. Jason Coates,” he said. “I’m in law school at GW.” And he took off again — like some superhero who just shows up when people are in dire need.
I did choke up once as I told that story. It happened when I looked up and caught my wife’s smile. I would never have met Christina. We wouldn’t have had Oliver, who is 4 years old and was sitting in her lap. And there wouldn’t have been another child on the way if Jason hadn’t pulled me from the canal.
Over the next six years, eating wood-fired pizza together was Jason’s and my routine. I helped him get a summer internship clerking for a Queens civil court judge. Twice on the anniversary of our encounter, I had him on my former radio show to retell the story. He was with me on the day I married my wife, so being there the day he wed Alex had karmic symmetry.
“There is a saying that goes, ‘Luck is the residue of design,’ and this to me is Jason,” I told the attendees. “Good things happened to Jason not because he was lucky. With all his actions prior to this morning, he planned this amazing day and probably didn’t even know it.”
Short of saving Jason’s life, one of the most meaningful things I could do for him was to preside as minister at his wedding. Becoming ordained, in fact, turned out frighteningly easy for a heathen like me.
I filled out a form for the Universal Life Church, and within days, my $29 fee came with an official minister card.
The morning of the wedding, I whipped out my card before I signed the marriage certificate, feeling — if I’m being honest — like I could be a man of God.
For, like, a day.
Just don’t lose it. Don’t cry. After I told of Jason’s courageous moment, I noticed some in the audience covering their mouths. I could tell they had not read or known about the original story I had written in the Washington Post Magazine about it. Two women were weeping. I finally turned to the bride:
“So, Alex, not that I have to tell you, but you are marrying a real-life hero.
“And, Jason, not that I have to tell you, but you are marrying someone equally good at looking out for others. I know this because you told me yourself.”
A couple of months before, I had asked Jason and Alex to write letters to one another. But instead of giving them to each other, I asked they give them only to me so I could get a better sense of their relationship. I promised I would not embarrass them.
They had met through mutual friends. After their first date — a day at the National Zoo — they ended up at the Firehook Bakery in Cleveland Park, where Jason thought he would show off his ability to devour pastries. He gorged himself. Crashing from his sugar high, he fell asleep on the train ride back home.
I looked out at the attendees around their tables and said, “I like to imagine Alex looking at him, passed out on the Metro next to her in that moment, thinking, Yep, he’s a keeper.”
More laughter. The humor was good camouflage. I was confident I’d make it through the ceremony.
There was the story of Jason indulging Alex’s spontaneity, going out in the gale-force winds and rain of Hurricane Irene and her finding out, only after they returned sopping wet from head to toe: Jason really hates getting wet — a notable irony, given how Jason and I met.
The problem with heroes is, of course, they’re sometimes so good at saving everybody else they forget to do little things for themselves.
Like get real furniture, go to the dentist and set up a retirement account, all of which Alex encouraged Jason to do. In the letter he wrote Alex, you could tell he loved the way she balanced her childlike exuberance for life with her personal responsibility.
“You have suggested a few times that, when we have a bigger place to live, we should get a young cat to keep Sal company,” Jason wrote. “When I told you that I was worried that a younger cat might take our attention away from Sal, you told me that our hearts would expand to love the new cat just as much as we love Sal. I agree with that.”
“Being with you always makes me feel at home,” Jason wrote Alex. “Being with you and Sal makes me feel like I am exactly where I belong.”
Alex was less cynical about the world and more open to life experiences because of Jason, she wrote. She is really looking forward to being his life partner for many reasons, but “most of all so I can hang out in my pajamas with you and watch reruns of ‘The Office.’ ”
The vows, the exchange of rings and the kiss, after I pronounced them man and wife, went by so quickly. The entire ceremony lasted less than 20 minutes.
“Even if Jason weren’t my son, I’d be proud of him and who he is,” Jason’s father said to me after the ceremony. I understood entirely.
When everybody was mingling inside, I took a moment for myself and walked into the front of the restaurant, outside the tropical garden. As I had when Jason ran back to Georgetown that night in January after pulling me out, I let go of heaving sobs — the sobs of a man who knew how close he came to never seeing this beautiful day — and all those that had come before it.
Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.
com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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